1. Grizzly Bear: “Mourning Sound”
The kind of indie rock that was popular from about 2007 to 2011 has fallen out of favor with a lot of music critics nowadays, and the new Grizzly Bear album, Painted Ruins is the latest to fall prey to a lukewarm reception. That’s a shame, because Painted Ruins is a gorgeous work of art, beautiful in its many intricacies. The record as a whole takes some time to reveal itself, but the most immediate track of the bunch is “Mourning Sound.” The song relies on a nice, plodding, round bass line, with countless other instruments adorning it. I wouldn’t be able to name all the instruments on here if my life depended on it — definitely a bunch of different types of synths and guitars, but is that a harp? A harpsichord? Flutes? It’s hard to tell, but they all weave together to form a tapestry of beautiful (mourning) sound.
2. Queens of the Stone Age: “The Evil Has Landed”
Queens of the Stone Age have carried the torch for populist hard rock since I started first making mix CDs over 15 years ago. “The Evil Has Landed” is like an even funkier version of Led Zeppelin’s “The Ocean”, a.k.a. the fifth greatest Zeppelin song ever. The bouncy Bonham-esque drumbeat combined with the fun guitar riff fills me with unadulterated joy.
3. Turnover: “Super Natural”
There are some bands that just excel at making songs that sound cinematic, songs that conjure feelings of nostalgia — Real Estate immediately comes to mind. “Super Natural” sounds a bit like Real Estate, with its lilting, ringing guitars, but with a slightly more direct confrontation of emotion in its sound. The lyrics are as alluringly wistful as you would imagine, like when he sings “I don’t know how but I can say that I found my religion / When nothing was ahead of us that week in California.” This is the kind of song that won’t get a lot of exposure, but absolutely should, because I think a lot of people with diverse tastes would be really into it.
4. Miley Cyrus: “Younger Now”
Taylor Swift wasn’t the only white female pop star to release a new song this month. If you had played instrumental versions of “Look What You Made Me Do” and “Younger Now” for me four years ago, and made me guess which one was a Miley Cyrus song and which one was Taylor Swift, I would have assumed the dark, electro “Look What You Made Me Do” was Miley and the country-tinged pop of “Younger Now” was Taylor. Oh, how times have changed.
Miley Cyrus has decided to dial it back about a hundred notches from the molly-infused party days of “We Can’t Stop” and go take a more rootsy path, first with lead single “Malibu” and now with “Younger Now.” Her lyrics acknowledge her new direction: “No one stays the same / You know what goes up must come down / Change is a thing you can count on / I feel so much younger now.” The track gives off some serious Dolly Parton vibes (which makes sense since Parton is featured on another track from her forthcoming album, and oh, is also her godmother), and then adds a little Angel Olsen for good measure. The recording sounds great, with loud, booming drums, some old-school countrified electric guitar, and a great vocal from Cyrus.
5. The War on Drugs: “Pain”
The War on Drugs’ new album, A Deeper Understanding, is a revelation. It’s stunning, an introspective masterpiece where every single song makes you feel alive. “Pain” is as good a representative as any of the cathartic joys contained on the album. First-time listeners may be reminded of the “heartland rock” of the 1980s, with some resemblance to Bruce Springsteen, Tom Petty, or Neil Young, with Dylan-esque vocals to top it off, but I think the comparison is a bit reductive. As transcendent as those predecessors surely are, Tom Petty and Neil Young never reached the sonic heights of “Pain.” It’s a dreamy, almost ethereal song that stays grounded by it’s reliable beat and satisfying guitar work. It just blows me away.
Here’s a running Spotify playlist of all the Five Quality Tracks for each month in 2017 (or at least, all the tracks that are on Spotify).